In recent days, news has emerged that the 2023 NRL season could open with a game between Manly and Souths in Los Angeles.
The cynical have already noted that the proposal seems to be motivated by prospects in the American gambling market, with some platitudes about raising the profile of rugby league in the USA thrown in to keep up appearances.
I’ve always said that if you’re determined to throw your money away, at least consider throwing it at a charity, but there’s something oddly appealing about Australian rugby league benefiting from the profligacy of Americans, and there’s already talk about such games becoming regular occurrences.
Efforts to raise the profile of league in the USA are nothing new. Missionaries have been trying to convert Americans since the early 1950s, with limited success. The many stories about Americans being exposed to the game and liking it – ‘wow, no helmets’ – are nice to hear but few have actually been converted.
The NFL has deep roots and a tribalism of its own, and offers young athletes rich financial incentives. Expectations about rugby league in the USA should be modest.
Still, it’s interesting to look at where the American game is today and some of the efforts to win converts over the past 70 years.
In 2017, the USA Rugby League reported just 600 domestic participants. It’s not clear if that number has grown since but, in 2021, the same source reported 200 active female participants.
There’s also been recent expansion in the number of clubs in California. It’s nice to see, but American league remains a small community of amateurs and volunteers playing sparsely attended games at suburban parks. Even so, I’ve adopted the Sacramento Immortals as my American love, due to their terrifying logo and fearsome defence.
The Immortals and their rugby league brethren wouldn’t exist at all without romantics like Harry Sunderland and David Niu. Here’s some of their story.
The Sunderland manifesto
First, to July 1951. It was the dawn of rugby league’s golden age in Australia. League hadn’t just survived, it’d prospered during World War II thanks to a powerful advocate in Herb ‘Doc’ Evatt and public hunger for distraction as the conflict in Europe crept toward Australian shores.
The champion French team of Puig Aubert was wowing crowds across Australia, Clive Churchill was in his pomp and another group of immortals were limbering up to take St George and the game to new heights.
On the day of the famous third test between Australia and France at the SCG, Harry Sunderland published an article in Rugby League News titled ‘Spreading League into America’.
Sunderland was rugby league’s version of PT Barnum, a tireless entrepreneur and raconteur who’d played a key role in establishing league in his native Queensland, and in France. His journalism is immortalised through English rugby league’s Harry Sunderland Medal.
With Les Chanticleers about to become world champions just 17 years after French rugby league’s founding, Sunderland locked his sights on America.
He wrote that “America is the new field which now awaits propaganda… you know the harvest that has come from the early work in France and you should all now know that we must act with regard to America or remain static”.
Sunderland was essentially crowd-sourcing funds for an American team to tour England and France in 1952. A tour came to pass, just a little later and not quite as planned.
The American All Stars tour
Between May 1953 and January 1954, the American All Stars played 31 games in Australia, New Zealand and France, including the USA’s first international, a 0-31 defeat to France at Paris in January 1954.
The All Stars were American college football players who had no background in league. They were drafted into a potential money spinner by wrestling promoter Mike Dimitro, another tireless raconteur.
According to Ray Stehr, Dimitro was “a fabulous character… who pulled enough wool over the eyes of [Jersey] Flegg and co. to clear the national debt” and who apparently convinced Flegg that “a nation of 140 million is waiting to be converted to league”.
The All Stars were inept. Then Balmain coach Latchem Robinson was drafted in to teach them the basics of rugby league and while they won some games on their travels, there’s a strong suspicion that their opponents took pity on them and that, according to Ian Heads, Robinson might’ve drafted in some Balmain lower graders to avoid complete embarrassment.
Of Al Kirkland and Greg Smith
It took nearly 40 years until another USA team competed at international level, but the All Stars tour wasn’t without a legacy.
Winger Al Kirkland impressed in Australia and stayed on to work in a Sydney munitions factory after the tour. He played a full season for Parramatta in 1956 before returning home to play in the NFL. By all accounts, he was a handy player.
Twenty years later, Newtown and John Singleton signed a fringe NFL player, Manfred Moore, amid much fanfare. Moore played four games for the Jets before being injured against Penrith and returning stateside.
There’ve been other intriguing athletes who’ve missed out on the NFL and come to the attention of rugby league coaches, but none have got as far as Greg Smith.
Then Newcastle coach Warren Ryan was apparently seduced by Smith’s athletic ability and possibly his cover story of having played NFL for Philadelphia. His only NRL appearance against Canterbury in 1999 didn’t end well.
The Niu dawn
David Niu played 19 games for St George in the early 1990s and, after meeting his future wife on a trip to Hawaii in 1991, was enticed back to the USA.
He’s been the driving force behind American rugby league ever since. He debuted for the reborn USA national team in 1993 and played for the American Patriots at the World Sevens in Sydney in the mid ‘90s.
While working as a schoolteacher in Philadelphia, Niu helped form teams along the east coast, which led to expansion in the south and, eventually, west of the country.
His work was critical to American rugby league’s zenith. After qualifying for the 2013 World Cup, the USA beat the Cook Islands and Wales in the group stage and booked a quarter-final at Wrexham against the Australia of Cameron Smith, Billy Slater, Johnathan Thurston and Greg Inglis.
They were thrashed, of course. But a number of local players got them to the World Cup, before heritage players got them to a date with Australia. It’s a nice story.
I’ll give the last word to the irrepressible Harry Sunderland, “In America we must attempt to create a league there to have nationwide games at a seasonal period in their spring. The same personalities who’re engaged in the grid-iron… should be the people to operate for our code”.